Harare International Festival of the Arts 2010

May 12, 2010

A short video of some of the musical highlights of the 2010 HIFA festival in Zimbabwe which I was lucky enough to attend:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15F3SQ_fMR4

IberoAmericano Festival de Teatro de Bogota

March 31, 2010

Something of a dream came true for me last week when I was able to attend the bi-ennial theatre festival in Bogota, Columbia. I had heard excited rumours about this festival for a while: South America’s Edinburgh, host to theatre companies from all over the Latin continent, started somewhat improbably in 1998 by the aging but much beloved Columbian soap star Fanny Mikey. This was the place I needed to be to continue pursuing the marriage of my personal passion for South America with my professional interest in theatre producing.

The 2010 festival was the first since the sad passing of its charismatic founder Fanny Mikey, and tributes to her larger-than-life presence were everywhere: theatres were named in her honour, her orange curls and wicked grin were plastered across billboards, and ebullient quotes from her life adorned theatre foyers, the most bullish of which read: “Everything in life is possible; the only thing impossible is war.”

Fanny Mikey, founder of the Bogota Theatre Festival

Clearly the international theatre world is beginning to take notice of this festival: about 50 international delegates from the professional theatre world attended the 2008 edition of the festival; this year, there were 100 of us, including 6 Brits – myself and 5 representatives of the newly established International Theatre Consortium. Bogota is an extraordinary and challenging place for a festival of this scale: at 2,640 metres above sea level, the city’s air is thinner than usual, and heavily polluted by the smog of traffic fumes that permanently clog the highways, enforcing strenuous aerobic exercise on us in our dashing from venue to venue. The city is immense, and the geographical layout of the grid system is frustratingly deceptive: streets called ‘carreras’ run in one direction and cross streets called ‘calles’ run at right angles. All are supposedly numbered, but given that absolutely no roadsigns exist, very few people, including taxi drivers, seem to know which street is which, with odd diagonal streets and occasional avenues adding to the confusion. Maps seemed to vary wildly in their accuracy, and taxis are almost always 40 minutes late, their passage constantly blocked by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Given that the festival included plenty of events at obscure venues – residential apartments, old crumbling theatres tucked away in courtyards up pedestrian sidestreets, school halls, parks, etc. – most delegates missed at least one show per day from their intended agenda, despite Columbian timekeeping meaning that most shows went up 30 minutes late, and waiting on the busy pavements of Bogota soon became a significant part of the experience.

Despite having to do battle with the city each day, it was an inspiring adventure, and on the occasions when we weren’t in a rush, a wander through the back streets offered up all sorts of surreal delights, from brightly coloured murals, to mountains of fresh strawberries sold by the scoop from a barrow, to dozens of tiny theatres hidden away between shops and houses.

I was of course delighted and secretly rather proud that Teatro de Los Andes’ new show – a South American version of The Odyssey – went down so well (rousing standing ovation from an almost full house) and am hoping that its warm reception might add momentum to my campaign to get this fabulous Bolivian company’s work to the UK (see my first ever blog post on the subject). Other highlights for me included work by Chilean company Teatro En El Blanco: they presented two shows in Bogota – Diciembre, which I didn’t manage to get to see but which is coming our way in the summer care of the Edinburgh International Festival, and Neva, a weirdly comic piece about the death of Anton Chekov. Los Santos Innocentes by Mapa Teatro was a powerful piece of work (using fantastic documentary film footage, two venerable marimba players and a team of actors) about the surreal annual festival in an isolated Columbian town in which King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children is commemorated by drag queens running through the streets whipping passing victims. The site-specific piece El Autor Intelectual from Colombian company La Maldita Vanidad was also worth a watch: we peered voyeuristically from an external courtyard through a living room window into an apartment where three siblings argued over whose turn it was to look after their ailing mother, with tragicomedy inevitably turning to tragedy as the stakes got higher and higher. And an honourable mention must be made of the enjoyably bonkers show A Dentro La Casa A Fuera from Colectivo Inedita: no one seemed to have much of an idea of what was going on in this piece but it certainly ticked the ‘memorable and delightfully bizarre’ box, and what attendance at a Latin American arts festival would be complete without just that?

I could have stayed twice as long and was sad to miss the Cien Dias trilogy in particular, in which three separate directors tackle the dystopian subject matter of a world in which no murders take place, except for the one assassination prescribed each 100 day period by the state, with the murderer and victim selected by public ballot. I have heard good things about part one of the trilogy from those lucky enough to have stayed a day or so longer than my schedule allowed.

As ever, I had to sit through my fair share of the bad during the week in return for the reward of the good – only a few theatrical frogs ever turn obligingly into princes upon kissing, I find – but I quite enjoy the gamble in pursuit of discovering something new and wonderful. I do admit, however, to being grateful for the occasional interval at which I could slip out discreetly in pursuit of a glass of Malbec when it all got too taxing.

So all in all, a stimulating, invigorating, delightful week; put it in your 2012 diaries now.

Leadership: Continuous Personal Development

January 23, 2010

One of the things I’ve been increasingly thinking about recently, in part as a specific focus of some of my Clore Fellowship training, is the personal nature of leadership. When I was asked to talk about my leadership perspective for a presentation a little while back, my first instinct was to look for examples or instances from my professional life which had influenced my understanding of leadership. But I quickly realised that it was much more personal than that – my perspective on leadership had begun to be formed much earlier on in my life through more personal encounters. So I felt a consideration of this topic would be dishonest of me if I didn’t direct my reflections to much more personal influences, foremost of which had to be my Mum.

My Mum and Dad - taken about 5 years ago

Mum has worked for about 30 years for an officially sexually discriminative organisation, an organisation whose male leaders have always forbidden female employees from rising to leadership roles. Even today, this discrimination is still enforced at the highest levels of the organisation.

As a child, I saw Mum challenge that situation every day through her work, and watched her play a very active part in the long fight against this discrimination. Eventually this culminated in a landmark court case in 1994 that, despite vociferous resistance from many colleagues, enabled her and other women finally to assume positions of leadership in the middle ranks of her organisation.

So I suppose I have to admit that something of the feminist was awoken in me from an early age, having become accustomed to seeing women struggle to assert their suitability for roles of leadership against the dominant male powers that be.

[I also now have a rather complicated and dysfunctional relationship with the church as a result, but that’s neither here nor there…]

Observing Mum’s working life at close quarters gave me a bird’s eye view on a very particular, unusual kind of leadership, and that is the leadership of voluntary communities. The kind of leadership role I saw her adopt was, I imagine, a very different one to had she been the boss of a profit-making corporation. There was nothing powerful or overtly impressive about it. In fact, as a slightly stroppy teenager it seemed to me that leadership was basically a total hassle: it seemed to involve dealing with eccentric, egomaniac nutters on a daily basis, being stuck at social gatherings for hours on end because everyone wanted to witter on at you about something or other, and you always always ended up really upsetting someone.

Leadership as I saw it through Mum’s experiences was tricky – it was something that had to be constantly negotiated with the community you were leading. There was something very politically complicated I learned from her about how to assert leadership from a position of being the only professional amongst a community of willing – sometimes overly willing – volunteers. It was, in effect, an example of what Julia Middleton has famously called ‘leadership beyond authority’ – leading from a position that doesn’t comprise hiring and firing authority over those persuaded to follow you.

Violin masterclass with Hugh Bean

As a child, the most important element of my education came in the form of one-on-one instrumental tuition: I played the violin a lot growing up and so my violin teachers were pretty significant people in my life. In a way, they were my leaders.

But, because of the nature of that sort of tuition, because of the intimacy and more familial relationship you develop with a teacher of that sort, their leadership was primarily facilitative. Of course I had my fair share of those who were dogmatic and dictatorial and frankly pretty terrifying about scale practice (or the lack of it), but in the main, my experience of their role was as leaders whose job it was to bring out the best in their pupils, so it was first and foremost a role of encouragement and support.

Incidentally, the wisest thing one of them ever said to me, and which I’ve never forgotten, was: “Don’t be afraid to get worse in order to get better.”

So if the point I’m making is that leadership is personal, that, although clear boundaries between the personal and the professional are useful, the two spheres are inextricably linked, then why have I allowed my thoughts to turn to a very public figure with whom I have no personal connection who holds the most conventionally powerful leadership role in the Western world? This man I think represents so many astonishing things about contemporary leadership because he manages to conflate the personal and the professional so apparently effortlessly.  Until he came along, I didn’t think it was possible in this day and age to revere political leaders. There’s too much spin, and therefore too much cynicism. There’s too much media exposure and interrogation, revealing all the disappointing flaws and human hypocrisies that in a former age might have remained hidden. I’ve always thought of my elders who idolised President Kennedy or Winston Churchill as somewhat naive – I thought that sort of reverence and respect for political leaders was a thing of the less sophisticated past, before citizens considered themselves journalists, publishers and opinion formers. I have become accustomed, ironically, never to finding admirable leadership qualities in those who occupy the most stereotypical positions of leadership.

And so, given the aggressive, non-stop media exposure of our current era, it is astonishing to me that this man has succeeded in making so many people fall in love with him, like teenage fans smitten with a rock star.

So how does that feed into my perspective on leadership in general? I think it has taught me that leadership can be different to what you have become accustomed to expect.

And that the most important thing about it is that it is utterly devoid of pretence. Or at least that it comes across as being so.

Leadership is as much about the person as the job title, meaning that professional development is impossible without personal development.

West Midlands theatrical goings on in 2010

January 1, 2010

I can’t claim credit for this brilliant picture – it was taken by a friend of mine on New Year’s Eve.

Following on from signing up to the West Midlands Theatre Pledge initiated by James Yarker from Stan’s Cafe (see earlier blog post), I have been thinking about what shows I’ll be attending in 2010 to fulfill this commitment. Turns out, it’s nothing like as hard as you’d think to find 12 regional shows that sound intriguing and exciting and I’ve been booking tickets like there’s no tomorrow. So, here’s what I’ll be showing up at over the coming months in the West Midlands area:

I kick off next week with the wacky sounding Ringside at Birmingham’s Town Hall, performed by Mem Morrison and presented by the brilliant triumverate of Fierce, Arts Admin and Birmingham Rep.

Following hard on its heels are two slightly alternative events: Foursight Theatre’s Education & Outreach department’s The Corner Shop Schools Project – a site-specific piece devised by Wolverhampton pupils and performed in their school; and a screening of You, The Living by a new arthouse and world cinema club in my home town of Worcester (not theatre, I know, but a cultural initiative I’m keen to support) at the city’s small subterranean Arts Workshop.

In late January I’ll be heading to Birmingham’s Custard Factory for a promenade performance of Measure for Measure by Rogue Play Theatre, a company I’ve been introduced to via the Stan’s Cafe’s blog. Never seen their work before so this one will be a first for me.

I then embark on a series of outings to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre where I’m currently shadowing the Executive Director as part of my Clore fellowship. Their new season includes some promising shows, and on my hitlist is the trilogy of Neil LaBute plays in the studio, plus Medea (a Northern Broadsides production) and Behud on the main stage.

Also in Coventry, I’ll be heading down the road to the City Arcade shopping centre where Theatre Absolute are leaseholders of a streetside unit for the next year or so, in which they’ll be performing their new show Breathe in the spring.

My former colleagues at Foursight Theatre will be touring their co-production with the ever inventive and charismatic Talking Birds in the spring – a full tour list isn’t yet posted online anywhere that I can see, but I happen to know that West Midlands performances of the cabaret-style show, Forever In Your Debt, include outings at the Arena Theatre Wolverhampton, The Courtyard Hereford and Warwick Arts Centre, so I’ll definitely make it along to one of those.

Talking Birds have got a couple of other projects in the pipeline for 2010 which I’ve also made a note in my diary about: Project 42 at the soon-to-be-reopened mac looks great, as does We Love You City, their autumn show at the Belgrade Theatre about Coventry City Football Club’s winning of the FA Cup way back when.

At Warwick Arts Centre I’ll be taking in Filter’s production of The Three Sisters and attending the Bite Size Festival in March, at which I’m especially looking forward to the premiere of Untied Artists‘ show Al Bowlly’s Croon Manifesto.

Not strictly relevant to the pledge – as it’s taking place at London’s Hampstead Theatre – but care of the creative team at Stratford’s RSC, is the premiere of Dunsinane. Directed by another Clore fellow Roxana Silbert and written by David Greig, I’ll be going along to support.

Other highlights on my radar but slightly off-message as far as West Midlands’ work goes include Bristol Old Vic’s production Juliet and her Romeo, ENO’s production of Satyagraha, a brave and unusual collaboration with Improbable, and Trilogy at BAC, one of the hits of 2009’s Edinburgh Festival I didn’t manage to see.

So, that should keep me busy for a few months and get me started on fulfilling my pledge. Any other suggestions most welcome of course.

Taking the Pledge

December 3, 2009

Last week, at the invitation of the Arts Council West Midlands’ Theatre Officer, I attended an Open Space discussion entitled The Challenge of Change – How can we create a better future for theatre in the West Midlands? It was something of a call to arms for the sector in the region and demonstrated a very positive collective will from the 80 or so theatre makers who attended to address the challenges we all identified through a series of conversations over the two day event.

This morning I was visiting the Stan’s Cafe website to book my tickets for their latest show (The Just Price of Flowers – on until Saturday at their A.E.Harris factory site in Birmingham; well worth a look!) and I came across a blog post from their director James Yarker on his thoughts following the event. He has come up with a series of pledges that he’s encouraging all of us to take to ensure the conversation results in us all ‘doing’ as well as ‘talking’. I think he’s on to something so I’ve decided to join him and take up the pledge too. Do spread the word and, just maybe, this will begin to make a difference.

The West Midlands Theatre Pledge

1: Attend 12 theatre shows in the next 12 months, 4 by West Midlands writers/artists/companies you haven’t seen before, 1 in a West Midlands Venue you’ve never been to before.

2: Take 12 people who have never been, rarely go, or don’t ‘do’ Independent Theatre to a show. Share transport.

3: Host a meal/party for 8 people 4 of which you barely know.

4: Write 12 comments/reviews/blog entries about theatre on other people’s sites.

5: Attend 1 mid*point or return to the next Open Space event.

Risky Business

November 29, 2009

My thinking about my Clore research paper has been developing over the last few weeks and I’m delighted that the wonderfully imaginative and clear-thinking John Holden has agreed to supervise my research.

Having settled on a draft wording for a stimulus question, I thought I would share my somewhat chaotic thoughts on the topic so far.

What is the leadership role in optimising risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector?

I would like to investigate some of the complexities bubbling beneath the received narrative surrounding risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector, as I’m not convinced we often talk about them entirely honestly. I’m interested in the complexity of the relationship between artistic risk taking and financial obligation. I’m interested in how the many areas of the sector that have an impact on this issue are intricately interconnected, how practice and process at an individual, organisational and strategic level influence our approach to risk. I’m interested in what scope there is in the sector for failure: it strikes me that if we’re really taking risks, some of the time they’ll fail, they won’t come off, and I’m interested in how much scope there really is for that failure to be seen as fuel to the creative process at large. I think we need failure, I think it feeds us artistically, so I think our attitude to risk taking is wrapped up in our attitude to failure too. I’m interested in the role of leadership in all of this – in where we need the leadership and what the role of the sector at large can or should be in enabling, encouraging and optimising risk taking.

My own experience of the touring theatre sector would suggest that it is becoming increasingly risk-averse as opposed to risk-taking and my interest in exploring the complexities at the heart of this topic stem from a concern that the iteration of a risk-averse approach may lead to a more stagnant sector in the future.

Some of the questions I am keen to explore include:

What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? What is the leadership role in this? At what level? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who decides which risks to take and which ones not to take, about being the one who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one that only replicates former ‘success’, does the true and vitalising success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?

How does the subsidised sector negotiate the dichotomous relationship of artistic risk and financial responsibility? How does it remain accountable to its taxpayer-provided income whilst continuing to push the boundaries, to play and experiment freely and with most potential for creativity? Does its sense of public accountability overwhelm its greater responsibility to take risks because of – not in spite of – its receipt of subsidy? Does it self-censor under the perceived weight of financial obligation?

What is the role of development in stimulating and encouraging artistic risk? What do we mean by artistic risk? Can we define it at all adequately? Is risk taking about the heart and risk management about the head? Can any risk assessment process be more than a procedural formality? Is risk taking about individuals, not about organisations or sector-wide approaches? Is it about brave and passionate champions of art, not about sector-wide facilitation? Is it easier or more difficult for long established, well regarded organisations?

How does the approach typical of, necessitated by or aspired to within the subsidised arts sector compare with the approach of the commercial arts sector? And, by extension, how does the approach of the arts sector at large compare to the approach of other sectors, for example the commercial and corporate sectors? Is there anything to learn from the financial sector’s attitude to risk? To its empire-building based upon risk? To successful companies built out of the ashes of failed companies? To insolvency practices and investment strategies based on concepts of varying and assessed risk?

I should add that for me there is also an individual interest at the heart of this research: as someone who has found themselves cast more often than they would wish in the risk averse role as the ‘nay-sayer’ who reigns in, controls, anticipates and problem solves, I want to take a sideways look through the process of this research at my own attitude to risk.

So, having arrived at this punishing and somewhat daunting series of questions, I am beginning at this point by simply reading, thinking, talking, and interviewing, so all contributions and thoughts are most welcome.

Anything of interest?

October 23, 2009

everything is interesting Postcard

The other day I picked up this Kelly Mark postcard from the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham – it caught my eye, it provoked a wry smile, it made me think. At first, I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Some things I find utterly uninteresting: motor racing, accounts and conversations about walnut trees with my best friend’s ex-boyfriend among them. However, I do of course acknowledge that those same things are greatly interesting to others: my dad, chairmen of boards and the dreaded ex-boyfriend respectively. So in that sense I can accept the artist‘s proposition: one man’s tedium is another man’s thrill; interest is in the interestedness of the beholder, as it were.

This postcard seems particularly pertinent to me right now and its slogan serves as a cosy bedfellow to my Clore fellowship mantra: ‘Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.’ I have been really challenged over the last few weeks to examine my own learning process, my own surety or otherwise of judgement and my healthy (?) cynicism. When being repeatedly challenged in all sorts of ways, when being provoked as part of a process of encouraging my development, I am aware that my response to something needs to bear as much scrutiny as whatever I’m being asked to consider. So, in the spirit of being brave, open and keen to learn, when I encounter things I feel to be problematic, poorly done or simply missing the point, rather than feeling frustrated by and dismissive of them as I usually do, I’m enjoying calmly assessing my response to them and analysing why I feel that way. And sure enough, I’m learning as much from that self-interrogation as I would do from the more passive admiration of exemplary practices and inspirational experiences.

In place of my usual expressions of dissatisfaction, I’m trying to ask – and in fact finding it increasingly easy and instinctive to ask – questions such as: ‘Why am I disengaged / angered / frustrated / dissatisfied?’; ‘Why doesn’t this play / conference / event work?’; ‘Why am I bored by this format?’; ‘Why am I unable to engage with this speaker?’; ‘Why am I being resistant to this approach?’. All of which, after an appropriate amount of self-criticism-cum-soul-searching, leads to the reciting of a more positive catechism: ‘How might I approach this differently to feel more engaged / less frustrated?’; ‘How are others able to appreciate this and what am I missing to enable me to do so also?’; ‘How might I have organised this event / structured this format / contextualised this experience differently?’; ‘How might these pitfalls be avoided?’; ‘How can I ensure I am able to see the flaws in my own work as clearly?’; ‘How might I get more out of this?’.

Of course, what I am finding is that if I answer these questions honestly and with due pause for thought, once I have gone through the initial phase of frustration or disappointment with an experience, I then find I am able to learn more from it than had the experience been a success in the first place. I should stress that these experiences are in the minority: in the main I am finding inspiration, stimulation and delight all over the place. And while there is real value and joy in meeting and learning from experts and role models, and from engaging in intelligent conversation with stimulating peer groups and sophisticated thinkers, I am also learning that what I can learn from less satisfactory experiences can on occasion be more salient.

I cannot, for example, ever hope to emulate Tim Smit – I do not have his unorthodox combination of infectious passion and radicalism – or Michael Kaiser – I do not have his levels of self-discipline, blinkered determination and relentless single-mindedness. I have found listening to them both recently to be hugely memorable, utterly inspiring, refreshing and deeply significant experiences. But I know that I can never do what they do how they do it. So there is something reassuringly practical in the process of analysing less inspirational, less convincing, less good experiences and challenging myself to meet my own criticism square on and figure out how I might better it were I in a situation to do so.

I don’t of course always know the answers; on many occasions I only know that I don’t know. And even if I think I know, I don’t for one second presume I could execute the theory any better than others who I feel have failed. But what I do know is that I’m beginning to find it a very useful process of self-awareness and self-perception, and therein, I hope, it offers me some promise of self-improvement in the dim and distant future.

Beneath the labels

September 23, 2009

Today’s afternoon session on the Clore Leadership programme, led by Sandy Nairne and Gus Casely-Hayford, focussed on the issue of diversity in the arts. It’s a subject that I have thought on a lot over the last few years, having worked for companies whose work has stemmed from communities who often find themselves in a minority of one sort or another, but my response to the session was more complicated and more challenging than I had expected. So before my head hits the pillow for the night, I want to work through some of this complexity.

As expected, the discussion was relatively wide-ranging, although, as ever in time-limited conversations, only able to skim the surface of some intricate and deeply personal issues. Topics touched on included identity (both created by and in protest against imposed labels), concepts of the mainstream and the margins, of nationalism and interculturalism, and of reductiveness and homogeneity. Participants in the discussion included people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Despite believing passionately in the importance and relevance of the conversation, I did not contribute, and felt increasingly uncomfortable about my inability to participate. I realised that, coming as I do from various communities which are all traditionally representative of the UK mainstream – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class – I felt increasingly unable to enter the conversation, for fear of being seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on the issue. I found myself very wary of errors of imposition, of assumption, of cultural ventriloquism: colonialism by another name. Whoever’s story it was to tell, or point to make, I certainly didn’t feel that it was mine.

And yet, through hesitancy on joining the discussion, I worried that I was guilty of the equal but opposite crime of appearing not to engage, not to acknowledge or admit the importance of the conversation. Something that couldn’t be further from the truth.

With my path through life having been inadvertently smoothed by belonging to multiple majorities, I now find it deeply difficult to know how to enter and support the conversation around diversity without, by default, reinforcing the voice of those already dominant majorities to the detriment of voices that have for too long gone unheard. I am rarely, if ever, referred to as white, heterosexual or able-bodied: they may be my labels, but they are ones that go largely unmentioned. My white, heterosexual, able-bodied experience is rarely remarked on in those terms. I pass under the radar, without having to live up to or shake off assumptions about or categorisations of my identity (/identities). Consequently, I do not want my voice in a conversation to strengthen a mainstream identity against which those who identify with minority indentities have to struggle to be heard in their own words.

In splendid isolation – Bore Place

September 15, 2009

So finally, after months of growing anticipation, my Clore Fellowship journey has officially begun, and I find myself at the fabled Bore Place – an organic farm cum retreat in the depths of Kent, where internet connection is gloriously temperamental and where mobile phone reception is non-existent. As the first chapter in our journey, all this year’s fellows – we are known as the Clore 6’s, being the sixth annual cohort – have gathered for a fortnight’s input, discussion, stimulation, debate, and, apparently, a lot of organic cake. It feels splendidly remote – our main connection with the outside world is the stack of newspapers on the breakfast table, although to be honest these in the main seem to be ignored in favour of unusually vivid and incisive morning conversation over toast and tea.
We are a group of 23 fellows, mostly strangers to each other – with the exception of the initial day conference in June – until 48 hours or so ago, but the combination of this provocative fortnight with the isolation of our temporary home is a heady one, and encourages boundaries to be broken down quicker than perhaps many of us would be used to. Something of a mantra for our experience was articulated by way of introduction on day one: “Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.” and already the conditions of our visit here certainly encourage, indeed almost necessitate, the first two of those. The sharing of ideas, abstracts, principles and aspirations with each other can feel surprisingly intimate and exposing, but since it is also clear that the rewards the programme has to offer are likely to be afforded in greatest abundance to those who give themselves to the experience entirely, it is also surprisingly easy to open yourself to the challenge of it in the safe space created amongst a group of formidably bright, interesting, sparky, like-minded colleagues.
Shortly before arriving here, all fellows were asked to submit – purely for the eyes of the rest of the cohort – a paragraph on what was most important to us. It dawned on me then that even a simple exercise like this could present a challenge of intimacy, of sharing, of exposure. It seemed to me that there was only really one way of answering this question: to answer it deeply, wholly, perhaps painfully, truthly; to give myself to the articulation of my most precious loves and trust in a group of near strangers to receive my answer openly, supportively, sensitively. It felt like a kind of nakedness.
I suspect this is only a gentle first exercise in a complex learning process that, in order to deliver its richest lessons, depends on my making myself vulnerable. But just now, with the first small hurdles behind me and an incipient trust in the community of my fellow fellows, that vulnerability doesn’t seem quite so challenging as it first did.

The Things That Matter To Me The Most
My husband, marriage, friends, family, and my home. Travelling, opening my eyes, learning, thinking. Memories, capturing and sharing them. Music. Doing my best, earning respect from those I respect. Being stimulated by what I do. Having the health and energy to live life to the full. The necklace my mum gave me on my wedding day. Old photos. Being able to believe that the future has exciting potential. Freedom and independence. Having the courage to be unconventional, but the integrity to be true and honest about it, not gratuitous. Having time to be frivolous. Sharing a bottle with old friends. Having private time and space to be myself. Tolerance, difference, fairness, intelligence. Books. Succeeding at challenges. Improving. Making the most of an opportunity. My violin. Perspective and passion, indulgence and discipline in equal measure.

Clore Fellowship research: from many acorns

July 31, 2009

A couple of days ago I arrived home from one of those wearisome days at work to be cheered by the post awaiting me on my doormat: for once there was no nuisance junk mail, no pesky bills even, just two delightful packages. One, a cd of the wonderful veteran Cuban guitarist / singer Eliades Ochoa – a present from my husband currently 8000 miles away on work – and the other, my contract for the Clore fellowship I’m about to embark on.

And the latter, of course, re-ignited my thinking about the Clore fellowship experience awaiting me just round the corner now. In a couple of weeks’ time, I have a meeting with the Clore staff to discuss ideas and plans for the year, and the combination of this appointment with a renewed awareness that the start of this journey is now very imminent has prompted me to turn my attention to articulating some of the rather vague thoughts that have been circling in my head for the last few months.

One of the elements of the fellowship I am particularly looking forward to is the research: fellows are asked to produce a 20,000 word paper on an aspect of cultural leadership that interests them in the course of their year, a process that is supervised by a university-based academic. I gather that mine might be a rather odd attraction to this part of the fellowship – I think it can be a daunting part of the programme, or for some people it can seem far too akin to ‘homework’ to be met with a groan. I, though, have to confess to missing the academic rigour and intellectual stimulant of that sort of process: I certainly feel my brain hasn’t worked in that way since university, and although my working life has most definitely not been short on challenges, they’ve been of a very different kind and haven’t stretched the old grey matter in anything like the same cerebral way. I am well aware that my brain doesn’t currently feel capable of the sorts of academic gymnastics it enjoyed in my precocious student years, so I am looking forward to once again grappling with thoughts, ideas, concepts, principles, abstracts and hypotheticals. Although, this time, with hopefully less precociousness and more professional experience to rough the neat abstract theories up a little, and bring a bit of realistic grit and profanity to the holiness of thinking.

I don’t feel anything like ready to settle on a particular topic to research as yet, but I have got as far as collating some half-articulated thoughts on various areas I’m interested in. My hope is that one or other of these little acorns might sprout some shoots which hold enough promise for developing into a full paper in due course. My embryonic subjects in need of much further thought are as follows:

1. Presenting international theatre
What is the role of the cultural leader in creating a context for international work? Whose story is it to tell? What foundations need to be laid – and how? – in order for it to communicate with an audience / reach its widest audience? What are the effects of globalisation on the creation and development of cultural voices? Does the international reach of these voices mean they are being diluted or strengthened? Does the internationalisation of theatre benefit audiences and what role needs playing in order to best serve audiences with this globalised cultural offer?

2. The non-creative creative
What is the role of a ‘non-creative’ cultural leader (i.e. someone not defined by that term ‘creative’, usually referring to directors, designers, choreographers, etc.)? How can a ‘non-creative’ leader be creative? Is there a place for ‘non-creative’ creativity in the cultural sector? How can they grow a creative space / organisation? What is the relationship between ‘creatives’ and ‘non-creatives’? Is there a creativity in the silent space between them, in the tension?

[And, by way of a sub-question: how can I be a ‘non-creative’ when my best thinking is done at 1am?]

3. Autocracy versus democracy in the arts sector
Leadership versus collaboration; hierarchy versus non-hierarchy; leadership versus democracy? Are these things in conflict with each other within arts organisations? Are they mutually exclusive, complementary, co-existential or symbiotic? Is there room for strength of artistic vision and principles of collaboration to co-exist? Is there a benefit to this? Where do autocratic and democratic models of cultural leadership serve the arts best?

4. Leadership and risk
What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one, does the success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?
[Some of these thoughts came to me during a Metapod Connect session this afternoon in which Pete Ashton mentioned the Failcamp scheduled to take place in Birmingham in October – a glorious celebration and sharing of spectacular failures and the lessons resulting from these experiences.]

5. Only Connect: touring companies and their audiences
How do non-building-based touring companies grow and maintain a relationship with a nationally disparate audience? Can a touring company lay claim to an audience as their own rather than borrowing them from a receiving house? What chance is there for cultural leadership to create the conditions for growing that audience from afar?

I think at the moment the ones that seem like the choicest pick of the bunch are the thoughts about presenting international work and about risk and failure. Two topics that perhaps are related, and perhaps they seem the most interesting because they raise the most – or the most difficult – questions.

I genuinely want to challenge myself to research questions I don’t already think I know how to approach, or about which I’ve already made up my mind. I want to scare myself. I want to open up a void and dive in to its surprises.

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